Hello dear reader,
A strange thing happened to me yesterday – I was out brambling with Mr Vohn and a lady came up with a big icecream tub full of brambles and asked if we would like them. Would we? Of course! I can’t believe anyone would be giving away this beautiful seasonal fruit after having spent the time picking and washing it. She explained that she had made three batches of jam from her haul and was now thoroughly fed up with them. It now occurs to me that I should have offered her some suggestions as to other ideas apart from jam but I was so surprised at the time, it just never occurred to me.
So, this post is going to be all about brambles and some simple things you can do once you’ve exhausted your jam-making tolerance!
First of all though, some readers may be thinking “What the heck is a bramble?”. Traditionally the word bramble was used for any scrambling prickly shrub of the genus Rubus, which is in the Rosaceae (or Rose) family. In the U.K. the term bramble is now usually only used to describe blackberry bushes and their fruit.
“Brambling” is the term used here for a trip out collecting wild blackberry fruit. I can remember many happy brambling occasions coming back with only a few brambles at the bottom of my bowl but with a full tummy and hands and face covered in their rich sweet juice! Going out brambling is a great thing to do with kids, a couple of hours out as a family creating those special memories that stay with you all forever.
The blackberry, or Rubus fruticosus to give it its botanical name, is commonly found growing wild throughout the British Isles. It is a scrambling shrub growing 1-3m tall, with arching stems with pink-white five-petalled flowers in summer followed by clusters of shiny black or purple-red fruit in late summer and early autumn. The stems are often covered in hooked spines, prickles and hairs. The leaves have 3-5 palmately arranged leaflets, which also often have hairs and prickles. The berry itself is an aggregate fruit, made up of many tiny fleshy drupes, each with a tiny seed inside.
It is very easy to cultivate blackberry bushes in your own garden if you live in temperate regions, as they are tolerant of most soil conditions, can cope with deep shade through to full sun and are fully frost hardy; they do however suffer on exposed sites, so require some shelter from wind. When purchasing blackberry plants, you will most likely be buying in a container or as a single, rooted cane; check the cane feels strong and healthy and that the fibrous roots are well-developed. Full planting and care details on blackberries can be found on the Royal Horticultural Society website.
After planting shorten the cane to the first healthy bud and remove flower heads in the first year, so the roots get all the energy to establish themselves and the plant fruits better in future years. Tie the canes onto horizontal wires as they grow and, in spring, remove any weak-looking canes at ground level and cut back any frost-damaged tips.
The flowers and fruit grow on these one-year old canes. After harvesting cut these canes back hard to ground level and tie in this years stem growth, which will flower and fruit next year (the same care as for raspberries, Rubus idaeus) and so on.
The RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) indicates that a particular plant is recommended by the RHS because it has proved to be reliable in appropriate conditions and is a good performing plant. This allows gardeners to more easily select the best cultivars for their requirements, by looking out for the Award of Garden Merit logo.
The RHS has awarded two blackberry cultivars this distinction. Blackberry ‘Fantasia’ (Rubus fruticosus ‘Fantasia’) is described by the RHS as a vigorous blackberry with long-arching thorny canes, whilst Blackberry ‘Loch Ness’ (R. fruticosus ‘Loch Ness’) is described as a not very vigorous blackberry with fairly upright thornless canes. That’s right, thornless, so this is the one for you if you can’t abide being scratched!
So, what to do with all the lovely brambles you have harvested, apart from the ubiquitous jam…?
I always freeze some for a lovely treat in the middle of winter, when fresh berries are nowhere to be found, or are ridiculously expensive (not to mention fairly tasteless) in the supermarket. You need to open freeze them, otherwise you end up with a big frozen clump. Lay out your best berries on a metal baking sheet in a single layer, not too packed. Remove any that already look a bit bashed or mushy, as these will not keep so well. Freeze them overnight & then bag them up once frozen. This way it is easy to take out a few blackberries at a time and not have to use up a whole mass all at once.
It is also nice to freeze some in ice-cubes to flavour your water on those unexpectedly hot days that sometimes crop up in autumn – here I have also added some mint leaves to pep up my water.
Make sure to hide some of your harvest from the kids, so you can make a delicious tipple ready for drinking by Christmas! Spiced blackberry brandy is a delicious warmer on a cold winter night and also makes a lovely Christmas gift, if you can bear to give any of it away.
Mash 500g blackberries and put into a one litre wide-bottomed air-tight jar (here I have used two 500ml jars); mix 50g caster sugar with 1tsp all-spice and spoon onto blackberries; pour over 400ml brandy and stir well to dissolve the sugar. You can use a reasonably cheap brand of brandy, as any mild harshness is going to be mellowed out and the delicate flavours of a more expensive brand will be overpowered by the blackberries. Don’t use a bargain basement cooking brandy, as you will still taste that harshness! Seal the jars tightly; store in a cool, dark cupboard & shake once a week.
Allow your blackberry brandy to infuse for at least two months and then strain into a bottle. I like to use miniature-sized bottles so can I give one or two away as Christmas gifts. Once strained, eat the leftover fruit with icecream – remember though this fruit is heavy with brandy, so not one for the kids!
Another lovely way to enjoy blackberries is as a coulis, or fruit sauce, with dessert. To make the coulis, mix 300g blackberries, 60g sugar, 2 mint leaves and 1 tablespoon lemon juice in a saucepan; bring slowly to the boil over medium heat and simmer for 10 minutes; blend or mash; then sieve out the seeds. This can be kept in a jar in the fridge for a few days, or frozen in ice-cube trays for several months.
Talking of desserts, my favourite way to eat blackberries is on top of a pavlova – I top my autumn pavlova with swirls of blackberry coulis and a few scattered whole blackberries.
You all know my love of challenges and competitions, so I am entering this blog post into the RHS Gardening Blogs Competition 2013!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my quick skip through brambles! Please let me know below what other dishes you like to have brambles in!